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Zhang Jintong sighed softly after his announcement.
All sighs were not the same; it depended on who was the one sighing. Zhang Jintong was never a "real" Celestial Master as far as orthodoxy was concerned—he was a mere figurehead propped up by those above. Moreover, Celestial Masters in the old days were always conferred by the court, which granted them legitimacy. In our modern society, the authorities would be out of their minds to confer such titles.
Consequently, his status had always been rather awkward. Nevertheless, after the all these years of presiding over the Celestial Master Temple, he had indeed established certain authority. Therefore, as he squeezed the rueful, grave moan from his throat in that husky voice, the roomful of priests shuddered in unison.
However, the old priest's tone changed abruptly after that, and turned unnaturally excited. "I've gathered you all here for three reasons. One is to witness the ceremony, another is to recompile the general registry of the sects. I will report to the Taoist association on the extinction of those six sects and that the remaining twenty-four of us are the only ones left of Zhengyi."
He paused, letting his exhilaration seep through like a serpent. "The third is to make an announcement. After this meeting, you are to go back to your own sects and pick out your best pupils. They will be summoned by the capital shortly!"
As if a kettle had been set up on a raging fire, there first came the bubble and burble, which grew louder until everyone was talking at the same time.
"I'm afraid you lost me there," said Wu Songbai.
"Could you explain what you mean by 'best pupils'?" asked Li Jingxiu.
The two were the abbots of Maoshan and Lingbao respectively. Together with the Way of Celestial Masters, the three were known as "Three Mountains of Talisman" and their relationship was analogous to that of sworn brothers. The questions they posed also expressed the ones on the minds of the others.
Zhang Miaoxian chimed in sarcastically, "You've gone this far to get all of us here, why don't you cut to the chase? Enough with the mysteries."
"The explanation is a simple one: it's time for us to show our cards…"
Zhang Jintong scanned the room. Straightening his gaunt, sallow face, he announced slowly but forcefully, "Fellow Old Masters, the Taoist skills have emerged!"
If their reaction earlier was comparable to boiling water, a sputtering frying pan was threatening to explode now. Apart from Wang Ruoxu and Tan Chongdai, the remaining fifteen sect leaders were all astonished and frightened in disbelief.
Despite the Taoist world's overt inclination towards commercialization, some things were imperishable. That tiny bit of remaining heritage that managed to survive in spite of numerous turmoils and calamities in the past millennia was the fundamental reason why there was still a Taoist community today.
Why were people willing to endure the austere religious life when they had the choice to live a comfortable secular one? There had to be a yearning in them—for immortality, for strength, for the ability to saunter the great void...
Therefore, in major sects such as Qingwei and Lingbao, the past successive abbots had made it clear that their disciples were divided into two types. One type was to specialize in making money for the sect, among whom the shrewdest ones would be considered as candidates for future abbots. For in order to have a sustainable sect, the abbot had to be good at dealing with the secular world and the government.
The other type, needless to say, consisted of those truly seeking the Great Dao. Only one in a thousand, if not ten thousand, disciples would turn out to be someone with such belief and such pupils were treasures to all sects, whom
they would stash away and never let outsiders know about.
Both types were necessary to sustain the Taoist heritage, only that the first type was the face, while the latter was the soul.
The spiritual essence had been declining at an alarming pace since Ming Dynasty, resulting in the Taoist community's rapidly move into the era of the end of Taoist skills. The following centuries saw countless people pursuing the true Great Dao and an almost equal amount of people giving up halfway through, deeming the concept a nonsense uttered by their predecessors and the existence of Taoist skills a myth only.
The remaining handful were on the verge of despair, clutching at the straws of hope.
Yet today, right in this Shangqing Palace, someone announced in front of them that the Taoist skills had emerged!
"Do, do you mean it?"
The eighty-or-so-year-old Xue Mingxin suddenly rose to his feet, pointing at Zhang Jintong with a quivering hand. His old yet exceptionally piercing eyes fixed upon the latter, lest he should recant the next second.
"I would never speak lightly of such great matters. I meant every word!"
Xue Mingxin was an incredibly senior member among the abbots. In a haste, Zhang Jintong also stood up and bowed low at the old priest.
"What is your source?"
"Do you have any proof?"
"We are all old men with a foot in our graves. We can't afford any joking around on this!"
The rest of the abbots joined in, probing and inquiring in various tones. Extending both hands forward, Zhang Jintong made a gesture of pressing down and said, "My words might not be convincing enough, so please see for yourselves."
With that, he switched on the large screen behind him, which immediately showed the figure of a young man.
While they were still wondering, the young man made a commanding gesture with his fingers and called out, "Move!"
A giant shadow leapt into sight without warning and landed forcefully on the ground. The young man then pointed with his fingers again, at which the shadow dived into the woods. Its hands then stretched out and ten sharp claws popped out, all shimmering black in color.
Like a ravaging wild beast, the thing rampaged frantically in the woods brandishing its sharp claws, slicing trees and stones like a knife cutting tofu. Broken twigs and rubble flew in all directions.
After that, the young man commanded again, "Stop!"
The shadow leapt back to his side at the word and stood motionless. Its savagery and the smell of blood seemed to have rushed out at the abbots through the screen.
Cold sweat was trickling down Wu Songbai's back. He then cried out in disbelief. "Was that Corpse-refining Technique of Lower Mao Mountain?"
"That indeed looked like Corpse-refining Technique!"
Wang Ruoxu's opinion-guiding came at an opportune moment as he put on a surprised look and said, "But I heard the requirements of refining corpses are extremely strict and there hasn't been any record of one for centuries. Is it possible that it was a fake one?"
"No, that's not possible. It's got the right toughness and appearance. If I guessed it right, that one had reached the iron level already!"
As the two discussed on, the screen went dark in a snap, while the sound still seemed to reverberate in the conference room.
No one spoke, but they were nonetheless almost convinced.
Zhang Jintong looked around the room and offered a brief introduction. "That man was called Li Suchun, a disciple of the seventy-two schools of Lower Mao Mountain. His master has already passed away."
"Where is he now?" Zhang Miaoxian asked.
Zhang Jintong darted a meaningful look at him. "He's in the capital."
The two words were self-explanatory. In plain words, it was called "given the choice, all talented people would prefer to serve the emperor, one way or another". Once a servant of the imperial household, more than enough resources would flow in at a mere nod of their heads.
With that, various Taoist skills—be it the Thunder Technique of Qingwei or talismans of Mao Mountain—would stand a good chance of resurgence.
After a brief moment of hesitation, all abbots were firmly determined. When a great fortune was within hand's reach, would anyone say no to that just because there would be hardships and dangers waiting ahead?
Moreover, even if they wanted to refuse, would that even be an option? Therefore, after thinking it through, they adjusted their attitudes and started asking more practical questions.
"Is there a quota for each sect?"
"No, the more people you could send, the better."
"What if there is no suitable pupil in the sect?"
"You can always go yourself. Everyone will be treated as equals."
"Apart from sending in pupils, what else do we need to do?"
"Nothing else for the time being."
Being the most senior member of the group, Xue Mingxin kept his silence the entire time, as if being preoccupied by some idea. He spoke suddenly at that moment. "Is the same thing going on in Quanzhen?"
All went quiet instantaneously. Zhang Jintong furrowed his brows and replied in a somber tone, "Yes, Baiyun Temple is probably holding a ceremony at the moment as well. I don't think there is much difference in the information we received."
He paused briefly and went on, "Fellow Old Masters, since we've gathered here today, I'll take the opportunity to have a word with you all. Our two sects have been competing against each other for over a thousand years, first over the Taoist orthodoxy in the old days and now for the official status and treatment. Now that the Taoist skills have emerged, I see it as a godsend opportunity. Whether it turns out to be an inexorable doom, a misfortune, or a blessing will depend solely on our capabilities. It is something we must fight for.
Once back in your own sects, you will have a few more days to think it over. On the 1st of the next month, send all your candidates to Longhu Mountain!"
Jiang Zhou, Qionglong Mountain.
Tan Chongdai had been meditating in the room of tranquility for a while when he heaved a sigh unexpectedly, sensing a disquiet of his mind. He thus stood up and walked to the window, gazing at the old tree in the courtyard, lost in thought.
It was June and plantations were already flourishing in the region south of Yangtze River.
The old tree had been there for decades and remained luxuriantly green. However, on the wall next to the tree, a vine had grown out when no one was looking, which was now dangling down like a small waterfall of flowing verdancy.
The tree was planted by his master himself, while the wisteria was a recent addition.
Watching them both, Tan Chongdai suddenly felt that time had changed into fluctuating sections, which were flickering back and forth before his eyes.
Ever since he came back to his temple from the ceremony, Tan Chongdai had been in a complicated and hyper-excited state. Despite knowing the news long beforehand, the event this time was advocated by the government, initiated by Longhu Mountain, and participated by the entire Taoist community… the significance was simply out of the ordinary.
Being in his sixties already, as a sect leader, he felt somewhat abashed to join the pupils of other sects. However, he never doubted his determination in pursuing the Great Dao for one single second. He was ready to risk every bone of his old body just to give it a try.
Songjiang, Taiqing 1 Palace.
Xue Mingxin was sitting upright in meditation. He looked tall and straight, without any sign of sagging. Becoming a cultivator at the age of thirteen, the old man was eighty-seven years old now, almost the same age as the modern state.
In front of him, two men were kneeling on the ground respectfully. One was in his thirties and the other in his early sixties. The younger one looked subtly awkward, but dared not utter a word. The older one, on the other hand, had a sorrowful face as he said repeatedly, "Master, please have mercy! Master, why can my junior fellow disciple go while I can't? Master…"
After much pleading, Xue Mingxin finally replied, "You are no longer as young and your aptitude is only of an average level. I won't be around for very long and I was intending to have you as my successor. If you went away this time, there is no guarantee what will become of you. I am worried that it would hamper both your cultivation and your future path."
The man kowtowed nine times, his head knocking loudly on the ground, and sobbed. "I became your pupil when I was little and have made painstaking effort to pursue the Great Dao. Now that a great opportunity is within my reach, come hell or high water, I want to give it a go."
Seeing the determination of his most senior pupil, Xue Mingxin could not bear to refuse him in the end. He only sighed. "Fine, have it your way. You two can go together. Now, please leave."
Jurong, the Temple of Mao Mountain.
The predecessor of Mao Mountain was Shangqing Sect, which originated from the Han Dynasty era. It was not until the Southern Dynasties during the time of Tao Hongjing when the sect of Mao Mountain was formally established. Therefore, when being addressed by other members of the Taoist community, its name always came with a prefix, being known as Shangqing Mao Mountain.
When time came to Ming Dynasty and Quanzhen expanded its territory forcefully southward, Longmen Sect, which was formed by Qiu Chuji, attacked and occupied Mao Mountain, resulting in the situation where five temples followed Quanzhen, while three palaces followed Zhengyi.
With the establishment of the modern state, the five temples and three palaces merged and together became known as the Temple of Mao Mountain, a member of the school of Zhengyi. There was also a Qianyuan Temple in the sect, which was a temple for female disciples only and a part of Quanzhen, Longmen Sect.
Right now, inside a meditation room in the temple, there stood a young man in his twenties. He looked like the sober and steady kind, with a hint of flamboyance about him. Opposite him was none other than Wu Songbai himself.
"Do you understand what I told you?" Wu Songbai asked.
"Any thoughts on that?"
"I will show them my capability, bringing back Mao Mountain the fame we deserve." The young man was concise in his reply.
"Haha, good! I've taught you well!"
Wu Songbai was exceedingly delighted by the answer, though. He stroked his long beard.
That was the way things were. Quanzhen and Zhengyi might seem equally famous, but Quanzhen was obviously the one having a better life, for it was the school emphasizing theories. Wang Chongyang maintained that Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism should combine together—cultivating the moral character, following the precepts, and converting the mortal men.
Such ideas fit the description of law-abiding citizen to a tee, which made the moralization work of the ruling class much easier. That was why Quanzhen had become the national leader of the Taoist community.
Zhengyi, on the other hand, was a sect of DPS quality, whose means ranged from summoning gods, spirits, and ghosts via talismans and other instruments to various other malicious approaches. They liked to play it the tough way. Such a style was disliked by the ruling class. Zhengyi was only awarded out of the need for stability.
With the arrival of the modern society, the authorities deemed those skills as feudalistic superstition and were stealthily suppressing sects of Zhengyi, Mao Mountain in particular.
At his age, Wu Songbai was indifferent to fame and wealth for himself. He had invested all his effort in this pupil, entrusting the latter with all his hopes.
"The inheritance of Mao Mountain is depending on you from now on."TL/N: meaning "supreme pure"